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Column 561guidance that, in order to fulfil its role, the sponsoring body has to be able to take an objective view of the adequacy of the provision available for the population of its locality.
"Locality" must be interpreted sensibly ; it will apply differently in urban and rural areas. In most cases, the suitable choice of sponsoring body will be the nearest sector college to the applicant institution or, if there is more than one within a reasonable distance, one of them.
As for last year's procedure, the funding council has told us that the funding request from the Swale centre was not supported by the sponsoring college--in this case Canterbury college--on the basis that the facilities already available for the local population were adequate. Indeed, I gather that it was the college's view that Swale training centre's application would duplicate existing provision, including franchised arrangements between Canterbury college and local schools. The funding council did not, therefore, make any funding available.
My hon. Friend made much of the inadequacy of opportunities for further education in the Swale area, but Canterbury college's decision to refuse to support the request by Swale training centre for funding to alleviate the perceived lack of opportunity does not appear to square with that. Moreover, in assessing adequacy of opportunities, any relevant provision offered by schools in the area needs also to be taken into account.
In order to review the effectiveness of the section 6(5) procedures that I have described, the funding council employed a consultant last year to visit the Swale training centre and similar institutions. I understand that the consultant reported that courses of the type for which Swale training centre was requesting funding were already being provided in at least two of Kent's further education
colleges--Canterbury and Mid-Kent--whether directly or through a franchising arrangement of some sort.
I fully appreciate the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend about the difficulties and long journeys faced by many of his constituents, especially the younger ones, in travelling from Swale to Canterbury and Mid -Kent colleges. Public transport is not one of my responsibilities, but it is clearly an issue that Swale training centre will wish to stress in making its request for funding in 1994-95, and something which the sponsoring body will need to take into careful account.
My hon. Friend argued that the section 6(5) mechanism--a mechanism that we introduced to ensure that bodies outside the further education sector, such as the Swale training centre, could have access to funds from the Further Education Funding Council--did not appear to be working. But I must beg to disagree. The funding council made available a total of £50 million in 1993-94 in support of applications from external institutions. Those allocations were designed to deliver broad stability from the previous year, with some growth in the following year. I believe that the procedures have worked well.
Two important indicators have emerged. First, there are clear signs of buoyancy in demand for courses. Secondly, the procedures have led to increased co-operation between institutions in the further education and local education authority sectors.
It is not for me or for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to make the judgment as to the adequacy of local provision. The Act very properly gives that decision to the institution which best knows the extent of both existing provision and demand in the area--the local college in the further education sector.
Column 562There are safeguards to those procedures. If an external institution feels that the decision of the local FE college is misguided, it can approach the funding council direct, which could review the case with the sponsoring college.
My hon. Friend expressed fears that potential sponsoring bodies would not support an application from Swale training centre, because it would be seen as a competitor. As we made clear during the passage of the Bill, the funding council--as well as my ministerial colleagues and myself--would be concerned by evidence that a college was blocking an application for purely self-interested reasons.
In the last resort, the external institution may complain to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the sponsoring college's view of the adequacy of local provision is not soundly based, or that the college--or indeed the council itself--had failed in its statutory duty. I should add, however, that, for the Secretary of State to be able to intervene, it would be necessary to show that the sponsoring body's view about the adequacy of provision was not simply different from his or the council's, but manifestly ill founded. I should expect that to be a hard test to pass.
My hon. Friend spoke about the support which the Swale training centre has had locally for its application, and I have myself seen letters from the local education authority to that effect. I may add, however, that one of the factors which the funding council took into account in considering applications from external institutions via sponsoring bodies in 1993-94-- the first year of the council's operation--was whether the courses for which funding was being requested had been funded in the previous year by the local education authority.
That was because the council was quite rightly concerned to ensure continuity of provision wherever possible. I understand that, when the council came to consider the new request from the Swale training centre, it noted that the request was for the funding of new provision which Kent education authority had not supported the year before. Thus, even if Canterbury college had supported last year's request from Swale for the current year, the council would not have been inclined to support it.
For 1994-95, the funding council is introducing new procedures for funding external institutions, which will allow more scope for funding new provision, on the basis of the council's new funding formula. Despite last year's unsuccessful application, it is therefore open to Swale training centre to put in a request for funding once again, but it must be put in promptly.
I repeat that the sponsoring college can make a formal application to the funding council only if it is convinced that there is no alternative provision or that alternative provision is inadequate. The centre may therefore be well advised to consider very carefully the nature of the provision available in alternative institutions in the area, and Canterbury and Mid-Kent colleges in particular, before making its request for funding.
However, as I have also said, in the event that one of those colleges declines to sponsor the application, it is open to the centre to approach the funding council direct. The funding council would then be able to consider the request itself, and negotiate how best to deal with it with the sponsoring body.
I was interested to hear my hon. Friend's remarks about the long-term plans for a Swale college of further education. He will know that I cannot comment on those
Column 563this evening. He may, however, like to know a little about the procedure for bringing an existing institution into the further education sector.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has powers under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 to establish, by order, a further education corporation to conduct an existing institution. Given the funding council's statutory duties with respect to securing the provision of further education, it is my right hon. Friend's view that any proposal for the establishment of a new FE corporation should fall to be considered by the council in the first instance. Where the council favours such a proposal, the institution would need to publish proposals for incorporation in accordance with certain regulations. My right hon. Friend would then take account of the council's recommendations before taking a decision whether to make the necessary order.
Column 564We have had an interesting debate, and I recognise the strength of feeling in the Swale community, which my hon. Friend has so convincingly and eloquently conveyed. However, I believe that the procedures in place for ensuring that the case for funding the Swale training centre is properly considered are adequate and have been properly followed. I have no doubt that they can work again in the coming year if the Swale centre makes another request.
My hon. Friend will understand from what I have said that it is not a matter in which I or my right hon. Friend have any direct locus. We have set the framework ; it is now for the Further Education Funding Council and for local institutions in the area to make it work. I conclude by thanking my hon. Friend for his contribution to the debate, and for opening up the topic. I express the hope that I shall be able to accept his kind invitation to visit Swale so that I can see the area for myself and the institution before too long. Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at Eleven o'clock.
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